When he was a student at Harriton High School in Lower Merion, Alon Shaya chopped a lot of onions. That's because Shaya - now a superstar chef whose New Orleans spot was just named best new restaurant in the country - was a troublemaker as a kid.
And every time he got thrown out of class, he'd ask to be sent to Donna Barnett's home-economics class.
Barnett, a spitfire of a woman who just retired after 25 years at Harriton, saw something in the troubled teen. When he was at his worst, Shaya would face a mountain of onions.
"I'd say, 'Give me one pound thin-sliced, one pound minced, one pound diced.' He'd just look at me - 'What are you going to do with all those onions?' And I'd tell him that wasn't his business. 'Just start chopping.' "
Shaya, 38, executive chef and partner in Domenica, Pizza Domenica, and Shaya restaurants in New Orleans, has risen to just about the highest pinnacle a chef can achieve: He was named best chef in the South in 2015, and his eponymous modern-Israeli eatery won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant in America in 2016.
Barnett formally taught Shaya between 1994 and 1997, but informally, well, she's still teaching him. "He may be a James Beard Award-winning chef now, but he still needs help writing recipes," said Barnett, who was looking over his shoulder recently as he put the finishing touches on his new cookbook, My Journey Back to Israel (Knopf).
Shaya doesn't mince words when it comes to his former home-ec teacher: "Donna Barnett saved my life," said the soft-spoken, Israeli-born chef. "I would have ended up in jail or worse. Because of her persistence, because she believed in me and saw the opportunity to make a difference in my life and she stuck with me, I am able to do what I am doing today."
Which is why Shaya and Barnett are teaming up to give back, an idea hatched on a culinary trip to Israel led by Zahav chef/owner Michael Solomonov and Shaya in 2015, Barnett's retirement gift to herself.
"We spent 10 days together and really had a chance to talk things out," said Shaya. The new Shaya/Barnett Initiative is supporting a ProStart two-year culinary program at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans. Attended by many kids at risk in all kinds of ways, the high school had the bare bones of a culinary program but lacked the basics to make it work.
"The kids literally had nowhere to cook," said Barnett, who was used to having a fully outfitted kitchen at Harriton, along with a generous budget. "I did my postgrad work at the Cordon Bleu - my students were savvy world travelers," said Barnett, who has a bachelor of science degree and a master's in nutrition.
"I made a list of what each of our cooking stations had [at Harriton], and we put together a shopping list."
With the help of Shaya's wife, Emily, and assistant Meredith Dunbar, as well as Caroline Rosen of the John Besh Foundation, an Amazon wish list took shape, a gift registry on Facebook. In five days, more than $9,000 worth of equipment had been purchased or donated, including standing and hand mixers in the school's colors of purple and gold. The Louisiana Hospitality Foundation presented a check for $5,000, a testament to just how valuable skilled local hospitality workers are to the economy of New Orleans and the state. Local Caire Hotel & Restaurant Supply donated five induction burners.
"We outfitted five lockable mobile carts with everything a team of students would need to really cook," said Barnett, who's been traveling between Philly and New Orleans for the last year and who will continue to do so. Barnett donated her lesson plans and recipes to the school, working with home ec teacher Kenneth Trahan to develop a high-level programming track.
A culinary center is in the works at the school, to be finished by 2018. In the meantime, the Shaya/Barnett Initiative will work closely with students and faculty. "I see our job as guaranteeing these kids' success, not their failure. It's a commitment for the long term," Shaya said.
"They'll need academic support in math and English, ongoing help with getting experience and outfitted to work in restaurant kitchens." Shaya has already hired two students; one is working at Domenica, the other at Shaya. "They are both cooking their butts off," he said.
Shaya's easy manner and accomplishments make it hard to imagine his troubled past. He moved with his family to Narberth from Israel at age 4; his sister was 9. Hebrew was his first language. Shaya's parents split up, his mom worked two jobs, and the kids were left to fend for themselves.
"He'd walk to the Acme [on Montgomery Avenue] when he was 7, in the second grade, to buy food to cook for dinner," said Barnett. "Penn Valley is a very wealthy area. I taught Patti LaBelle's son, kids of sports stars. The student parking lot is full of fancy cars, way better-looking than the teachers' lot. Alon was surrounded by privilege that he didn't have, by money he couldn't get. So he had issues."
He started working at 13 but said he was 16, his towering frame and early whiskers serving him well. He worked at a hoagie shop, a butcher shop, Woehr's bakery, an old-school shop on Montgomery Avenue, operating the cash register, sweeping floors, and restocking shelves. All the while he couldn't imagine cooking would be his career. He had no money and no discernible means to get it. Attending culinary school seemed out of the question. Shaya started getting high, he sold drugs, then got arrested. And got arrested again.
"I think the most scared I've ever been was the last time Alon got arrested," recalled Barnett. "He was almost 18, and he could have gone away for a long time. I had teachers tell me I was crazy putting a knife in this kid's hand. He was such a big kid. But somehow he listened to me. I was tough on him."
Barnett got him a job in a kitchen, but before that, she got him the collared shirt and khaki pants he'd wear to the interview. When his mom's car broke down, she made sure he got to work, to class. "I just kept telling him that this was his way out, the way out of the life he thought he was stuck with," she said. With the help of another teacher, Seth Schran, Shaya applied to and was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America.
He'd call Barnett collect to talk. When he'd come home, she'd take him out to restaurants, ordering dishes for him to taste and expanding his palate. "He barely graduated high school, but he was on the honor roll at the CIA from day one and graduated second in his class," she said.
"I didn't consider myself stupid," said Shaya. "I just didn't care, I wasn't focused. At the CIA, I spent all of my time either studying or working. I'd found my passion."
Now, working with his mentor, friend, and former teacher, Donna Barnett, Alon Shaya wants to help other young people find theirs. "These kids have so much potential," Shaya said. "Like so many cities, New Orleans has huge challenges. The schools are underfunded, there is a high incarceration rate among black males, kids lose hope. I know what it's like to struggle, but I got lucky. I had people that saw my potential and they stayed with me.
"If there's one kid who maybe wasn't going to go to culinary school or even graduate from high school, if we get that one kid to focus, to pick up that wooden spoon, then it's all worth it."
Donations can be sent to the Shaya/Barnett Initiative, attn. Raymond Landry at Mollere, Flanagan & Landry, LLC, 2341 Metairie Rd., Metairie, La. 70001
Makes 1 pizza or 6 servings
For the crust:
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons warm water
1/2 package dry yeast (11/2 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon neutral oil, plus a little more for oiling the dough
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
3 tablespoons flour on wooden board
For the Sauce:
1 10 ounce can tomato puree
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
1/4 teaspoon thyme
8 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
8-10 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated
1-2 teaspoons cornmeal
1. Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a large bowl, stirring until dissolved.
2. Add 1 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 cups of flour. Stir until moistened, using wooden spoon.
3. Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Place 3 tablespoons flour on the board, and knead the dough for 10 minutes until it is smooth and shiny.
4. Put some oil on your hands and oil the dough before placing into a plastic bag.
5. Refrigerate overnight.
6. For the sauce: Blend all ingredients well. Refrigerate.
Assembly (Day 2)
7. Take the dough out of the fridge, turn it into an oiled bowl, and let it come to room temperature and rest about 30 minutes.
8. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a pizza pan and dust with cornmeal. Place the dough in the pan, and gently stretch and press it so it fills the pan and is slightly thicker around the edges. Sprinkle 1/3 of the Parmesan cheese on the crust. Follow with the sauce (use as much as you like), remaining cheeses, and toppings of your choice. Bake 20 minutes. Let cool for five minutes before cutting and serving.
- From Donna Barnett, retired home-economics teacher
Harriton High School
Per Serving: 436 calories; 29 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 18 grams fat; 47 milligrams cholesterol; 1,179 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 12 biscuits
11/2 cups sifted unbleached all- purpose flour (sift before measuring)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
11/3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon
1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into cubes
1 cup cold mashed sweet potatoes or yams (microwave 2 large potatoes in advance, and chill)
3 to 5 tablespoons whole milk
For the glaze:
2 tablespoons milk
For the topping (optional):
4 tablespoons softened butter whipped with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 425 degrees.
2. Grease a baking sheet, or cover it with parchment paper.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and spices.
4. Cut the butter into the flour using a pastry blender or your fingertips. The mixture should have lumps in it the size of small peas.
5. Using a metal fork, stir in the sweet potatoes with just enough milk (3 tablespoons to begin) to form a soft dough.
6. Add a few more drops of milk if the dough is still too dry.
7. Pat the dough into a rough ball, and place onto a lightly floured surface.
8. Pat the dough into a 6-by-8-inch rectangle about 3/4-inch thick.
9. Use a long-bladed knife, and cut into 12 pieces. Place them 1 inch apart on the baking sheet, and brush with milk.
10. Bake 14 to 15 minutes, until the biscuits rise and their golden color is somewhat darker around the top edges. Serve warm with butter or topping.
- From Donna Barnett, retired home-economics teacher Harriton High School
Per Biscuit: 226 calories; 3 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 8 grams fat; 21 milligrams cholesterol; 260 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
1/2 pound of chicken, shrimp, pork, or a combination of the three, chopped into small pieces
2 eggs beaten
1/4 cup frozen peas
3 to 4 cups of cooked rice (at least a day old; the rice must be cold)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 tablespoon peanut oil
Dash of white pepper
1 onion finely chopped
2 finely chopped scallions, including the green part
1/2 to 1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup shaved cabbage - long, thin strips
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
1 peeled carrot, cut into matchsticks (julienne)
1. Heat wok on high. When hot, add 3 tablespoons oil.
2. Sauté thin slices of raw meat until chicken is white, shrimp are pink, or pork is tan. Remove from wok, and place into a bowl.
3. Scramble eggs in wok, cook, and remove. Place eggs into the bowl with the meat.
4. Add an additional tablespoon of oil if necessary, then sauté onions, celery, and carrots until the onion is clear. This takes about 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Add the rice and the soy sauce.
6. Brown and flip constantly, scraping down the sides of the wok frequently.
7. Reduce heat to medium. When rice is fried, flatten rice mixture in the wok.
8. Return meat and egg to the rice. Top with peas, bean sprouts, cabbage, scallions, sesame oil, and white pepper. Do not mix. Cover wok with a lid, and allow the vegetables to steam but remain crunchy.
9. Remove the lid, toss, and fry again for 2 minutes. Serve with additional soy sauce.
- From Donna Barnett, retired home-economics teacher Harriton High School
Per Serving: 513 calories; 21 grams protein; 80 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; 84 milligrams cholesterol; 521 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.